Excuse my French…

After slang and jargons, the next step in someone’s process to learn a new language is to be introduced with idioms.

An idiom is an expression that cannot be understood from the meanings of its separate words but that has a separate meaning of its own, and is usually proper to one’s language or culture.

If you think about them, you’ll find out that some are logical, and you might think that the image and metaphor that is used would be the same in the other language. For example, “Take the bull by the horns” mean the same thing in both languages.

Some of them, though they might use a different image, are alike in a way.When something costs a huge amount of money, the English say that it costs “an arm and a leg”, while the French say it costs the eyes in your head. Same idea when it comes to be short of money, the English say that “money doesn’t grow on trees”, the French say money does not fall from the sky. When it comes to drinking, idioms are quite transparent in both languages as well. Where English people would use “drink like a fish”, French people on the other hand would say that they drink like a hole (which makes it clear in both cases that they are drinking far too much). They also talk about “green hand” instead of “green thumb” to talk about someone who is good with gardens and plants.

Nevertheless, it would be far too easy if everyone in this world had the same references. Let’s make it a bit harder now.

I, once, attempted to translate word by word one of these idioms. I was trying to make someone understand that two of my friends had a “strike of lightning”. Yes, a strike of lighting. I guess most of the non-French speakers that have just read this sentence are a bit surprised. But that is the image we use to express love at first sight, or the phrase “to fall head over heels”. Either way, when you think about it, you’ll find the same idea that love destabilizes people and “hits” them despite themselves.

But what interested me the most in this research about idioms was the ones that leave you absolutely no clue in guessing what your foreign peer is talking about.

French language has a couple of very ridiculous phrases that fit this category. Here is a list of some that sounds completely absurd:

  • When they want to express the fact that someone suddenly changed the subject in a conversation, they’ll say that they jumped from the rooster to the donkey.
  • When they want to say that they slept in, they say they had a fat morning.
  • When they want to say it rains a lot, they say it rains ropes. (It may sounds ridiculous to you, but you should admit that replacing those ropes by innocent cats and dogs isn’t very smart either, is it?)
  • When they want to say they stand somebody up, they say they put a rabbit on them.

Now that you had fun mocking French language, I’ll ask you to detach yourself from the English one and try to imagine how hard it can be for a foreigner to understand people that talk about flying pigs, that cage cats in bags and butterflies in their stomach, that carry chips on their shoulders, that have apples in their eyes and that encourage people to break their leg because it is supposedly, a sign of luck…

Fun fact: Sometimes language can bear the marks of history, such as the passionate love story between France and England back to the old days. While working on this blog post, I found out that the English language has a few expressions that my friend Wikipedia considers as part of « Francophobia ». The tittle of this article is a clear proof of it and need no further explanations. But consider this: “Take a French leave” is the English phrase to express the idea that someone leave in a very rude way, without saying goodbye. In French, the equivalent is “Filer à l’anglaise” (literally: Fleeing like an English).

Just saying…


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